Alarmed by the transformation of historic charm into lifeless pavement, Spokane's City Council passed an emergency ordinance in March 2004, requiring that anyone who wanted to tear down a historic building in a historic district had to come up with a better replacement than a mere surface parking lot before they'd get a demolition permit from the city.
Last Monday, the council voted 5-2 to make permanent a similar ordinance, which now awaits Mayor Jim West's signature.
It sounds like a no-brainer, right? Sure, everyone in Spokane complains about a general lack of parking, but who wants that parking at the risk of the city's oldest and most character-filled buildings? Especially when you consider, as city-county historic preservation officer Theresa Brum does, the financial incentives of keeping those buildings around.
"The preservation that's gone on in downtown Spokane in the last five years," she says, "has had a very positive economic benefit to the city." She points to big projects like the rehabilitation of the Davenport Hotel and lesser rehab jobs that have become home to small, local businesses.
But the parties involved in creating the new ordinance seem split on whether the new rules are more concerned with preserving historic architecture or preserving the buildings-for-parking-lots phenomenon.
City Council member Joe Shogan, who voted for the ordinance last Monday, says "the first intent of the ordinance is to maintain historic buildings. It seeks to prevent their destruction wantonly."
But Jerry Winkler, who sits on the city's Landmarks Commission and chaired the demolition task force commissioned to work on the ordinance, says the latter is the focus. The new ordinance, he says, "will lead to less demolition of historic buildings for the creation of surface parking lots."
Council member Bob Apple agrees with Winkler, which is why he (along with Al French) voted against the ordinance. "This is not about saving historic buildings -- it's about stopping ground-level parking," he says, wondering why they didn't just put a ban on ground-level parking. ("That would also be another route that the council could take," concedes Brum.)
Apple believes the lengthy ordinance just creates more red tape for property owners and puts the city in the position of threatening rather than working with them by pointing out all the reasons and incentives for not putting up a parking lot. And all that red tape, he says, is going to discourage development in the downtown core, where the ordinance will probably have the most effect. "Who's gonna play by those rules when they can go outside of [downtown] and build anything they want?" he wonders.
French agrees about the red tape, but from another perspective. An architect with an interest in historic preservation, French wonders if the ordinance designed to save historic buildings might actually endanger them. Putting your building on the historical register is voluntary, he says. But the new ordinance applies, at least downtown, both to buildings that are on the registry and those that are merely eligible to be on the registry.
So what happens, he wonders, if you own a struggling building that's 49 years old? You know that even if you don't put it on the register, it's going to fall under the restrictions of the ordinance when it turns 50 next year. So do you a) wait another year and deal with all the new red tape, or b) just tear the whole thing down while you still can?
French suggests the ordinance was an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to the endangered Rookery Block. "We have on the books incentives to encourage historic preservation, and they've been working just great," he says, noting that in the last 18 months, Spokane has put more buildings on the historic register than any other city in the state. "[But] now we've decided we're going to use the hammer instead of incentives."
Brum, who has been working on this project for two years, notes that the ordinance is both about historic preservation and about heading off surface parking lots -- though with a keen focus on the latter. She adds, however, that unlike the stricter emergency ordinance, which unilaterally banned tearing down historic buildings to put in parking lots, this new ordinance contains a few caveats. For instance, if property owners can adequately demonstrate that hanging onto their historic buildings is causing severe economic impairment, they just might get to put in a parking lot.
Likewise, the demolition task force decided that if an owner had, say, two adjacent historic buildings and wanted to tear one down to build a new structure, they might be allowed to turn the other one into a parking lot to service the new building.
Spokane's vanguard work in historic preservation hasn't gone unnoticed. Last week, Rep. Cathy McMorris announced that the city had received the "Preserve America" designation from the federal government. The honor both recognizes the city's past work and puts it in line for federal money for future preservation efforts.
Whatever the effect of the ordinance, it seems safe to say that federal money won't be going into any parking lots anytime soon.